In 2013, the Chilean writer-director Sebastián Lelio made Gloria, a surprisingly tense portrait of a middle-aged divorcee negotiating the Santiago dating scene that showcased a knockout performance from Paulina Garcia. In the course of its 110 minutes, you watched this woman stumble across a late (if not necessarily last) shot at happiness and then saw it snatched away from her by circumstance, leaving her alone and pulling frenetic shapes on the dancefloor to the Eurodisco original of the song that begat Laura Branigan's early 80s hit "Gloria". Was she losing it, or merely enjoying a rare moment in the spotlight? Either way, you were left wondering what would become of her. Becoming the subject of a US remake would have been fairly low down that list of potentialities, but that's where Lelio now takes his heroine for a twirl. The Gloria of Gloria Bell has been conceived along similar lines, as a survivor of the disco era who still has the music inside her, but who's reached that point where she's no longer certain anyone will ask her to dance. Yet as played by Julianne Moore, she's a notably sleeker and smarter proposition. This Gloria goes to yoga; and she wears what one might term sexy librarian specs, rather than her predecessor's altogether retro, functional, health-service lenses. "Have you had work done?," someone asks her at a bar, a distinctly American possibility no-one was asking of the dowdied-down, fuller-figured Garcia's Gloria. After going through similar moves on different streets, Moore's Garcia winds up wilding out to the Branigan version of "Gloria", but not before we've had time to notice and consider just how this character's world has changed.
At heart, the new movie remains an honourable character study. Part of Lelio's project first time round - underlined by his subsequent work as a scholar of the marginalised (A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience) - was to notice the sort of woman the movies don't notice much, and to investigate how she spends a time she might feel had started to run out. The approach results in such small, quiet triumphs of empathy as the scene here that depicts no more than Gloria Bell folding linens while mouthing Paul McCartney's "No More Lonely Nights"; the song may not always be so pointedly melancholic, but that's a scene recognisable from most lives, and one not often filmed, certainly not in North America. The new film will at the very least be a field day for anyone who would consider themselves prepared to watch Julianne Moore doing laundry, or taking the trash out, or getting her hair done; the bonus is that Lelio has liberated her to do all that adult stuff she's rarely been allowed to attempt in her recent mainstream-franchise commitments. She swears, she screws, she stresses - though there's a pronounced difference in the level of the latter that goes some of the way to explaining why the remake isn't quite the experience the original was.
Garcia's Gloria was a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, which made her and the film that struggled to contain her such an unpredictable, at times exhilarating watch. Moore, whether by design or natural inclination, is more controlled in the part; even in the love scenes, she comes over as guarded, undressing with back turned to the camera, where Garcia threw herself at the screen with unselfconscious abandon. (The best American remake of Gloria may actually have been released five years before the original: Erick Zonca's Julia, with Tilda Swinton unravelling in the title role.) I never felt worried for Moore's Gloria the way I did for Garcia's Gloria, which made me wonder whether this project hasn't lost a little in translation. Partly, that's down to the cosier environment Lelio now sets his heroine in: American money evidently gets you bigger hotel suites and swankier restaurants than Chilean money. When this Gloria staggers hungover past two showgirls in full costume on the Vegas strip, she appears to be inhabiting a dream, and not the nightmare Garcia passed in and out of. Partly, it's a consequence of American cinema's eternal need to make plain and reassure. As that McCartney cue flags, Gloria Bell's soundtrack is nothing if not on the nose in amplifying the subtext (sometimes the text) of certain scenes: I'll allow Gloria Bell making eyes at a stranger on the dancefloor to the strains of "Ring My Bell" on the grounds of audacious cheek, but forcing this singleton to sit through an impromptu singalong to Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again, Naturally" is a choice any Will Ferrell comedy would play for knowing laughs. (Even the heroine's ringtone is jollier.)
The deluxe recasting has its effects, too, inevitably. As Arnold, the silver fox who flits in and out of Gloria's life, John Turturro is so much less mysterious and more knowable than his Latin equivalent: he's another of this very capable actor's put-upon sadsacks, so we sense not much joy can come of this coupling long before it actually hits the skids. Gloria's distracted son is played by an overqualified Michael Cera (given not a single funny thing to do); her ex's new love is played by Jeanne Tripplehorn (and you go "ooh, that's Jeanne Tripplehorn"); and Gloria goes on a wild night out with cuddly Sean Astin, which struck me as rather like taking scatter cushions and a comfort blanket on a bender. None of this detracts from the film's bottom-line professionalism: it's well-dressed, easy company, an engaging watch, and a film that will do no harm whatsoever to its maker's future employment chances. Yet where Gloria filmed vividly real people, Gloria Bell offers familiar faces, and that changes our relationship to these characters. It's one of those remakes that by no means shames or defaces the original, but it does diminish it slightly in the memory. Garcia's Gloria is no longer the one-of-a-kind she once presented as - though Lelio would doubtless insist there's a Gloria in every bar in every town, and that it still behoves us to look.
Gloria Bell is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.